My favourite Christmas things

 

From pixabay.com

 

This Christmas and New Year, my better half – Mrs Blood and Porridge – and I decided to forego our usual custom of heading back to Scotland to visit my family, mainly because we couldn’t handle another late December / early January spent in the cold, wet, windy and generally shite winter climate of the Scottish Borders.  Instead we elected to stay where we are, i.e. in southern Asia.  We’ve just spent four days at Unawatuna Beach on the southern coast of Sri Lanka.  I’d like to say the experience was entirely the idyllic sun-drenched experience suggested by this photograph.

 

 

Unfortunately, half the time, the area was battered by thunderstorms and Unawatuna Beach looked more like this.

 

 

In addition, the hotel we’d booked into turned out to be still under construction, workmen with whining drills, snarling saws and clattering hammers working on a new function room at the end of our corridor and more workmen plastering the walls beside the outdoor swimming pool (even while it was pissing with rain).  The place looked like something out of Carry On Abroad (1972).  But overall we had an enjoyable sojourn there.  We’re now spending Christmas Day in Colombo and plan to visit Thailand for a week-and-a-half over New Year.

 

Anyway, sitting in our Colombo apartment this Christmas Day, listening to our neighbours setting off fireworks – which is how they seem to celebrate everything in Sri Lanka – I find myself wondering what my favourite Christmas things are, in terms of books, films, TV, music and art.  Here’s what comes to mind.

 

© Vintage

 

Books.  Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) doesn’t do much for me these days, probably because I’m overly familiar with its plot and characters – who isn’t?  But a few months ago, I finally got around to reading Susan Hill’s enjoyable Gothic pastiche The Woman in Black (1983).  Hitherto knowing it only by its 2012 movie adaptation, I was surprised to discover The Woman in Black qualifies as a Christmas story.  At least, it uses the Victorian custom of telling ghost stories at Christmas-time as a framing device.  It’s during such a seasonal storytelling session that the middle-aged narrator gets unwillingly transported back to his youth and he begins to recall the terrifying experiences he had as a young man at Eel Marsh House.

 

Films.  A little while ago I wrote about the grim 1971 Australian movie Wake in Fright.  I realised it could be described as a Christmas movie, because its story of debauchery and squalor takes place during the festive season – though with the sweltering, fly-ridden Outback providing a background to the Christmas trees, decorations and carols.  In fact, if you fancy an Antipodean anti-Christmas double bill, you should watch Wake in Fright back-to-back with 2005’s Nick Cave-scripted The Proposition, whose climax has Ray Winstone and Emily Watson sitting down to a genteel English Christmas dinner in the heat and dust of the 19th century Outback while a pair of crazed bushrangers gallop towards their house intent on rape and murder.

 

© First Look Pictures

 

For more properly seasonal cinematic fare, though, I guess you can’t go wrong with The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) or the Finnish monster-Santa epic Rare Exports (2010).  And I have a soft spot for 1982’s beautifully animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ 1978 picture-book The Snowman.  I particularly like the version of it that has a prologue featuring David Bowie, who tells the story as a flashback and makes out this happened to him as a child.  Thus, the man who was Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke also flew with a snowman to the North Pole and met Santa Claus when he was a wee boy.  Wow, that David Bowie really lived a life!

 

© BBC

 

Television.  To me, Christmas TV means two things – comedy and (again) ghost stories.  Any time I’m in the UK during the festive season it isn’t difficult to track down on a Freeview channel one of the following comedic classics.  First, the 1974 Steptoe and Son Christmas special in which Harold tries to persuade his decrepit dad Albert not to spend Christmas at home in the rag-and-bone yard for once and spend it on holiday abroad instead.  This episode is poignant because it’s one of the few where Harold actually enjoys a victory and it was also the last Steptoe episode ever broadcast.  Second, the 1975 Christmas edition of Porridge where Fletcher, Gobber and co. form a Christmas carol-singing choir to hide the noise of an escape tunnel being dug out of Slade Prison.  And third, the 1996 Father Ted special where Ted and Father Dougal’s Christmas shopping takes an unexpected turn when they get trapped inside ‘the largest lingerie section in Ireland’.  I find it sad, though, that I haven’t massively enjoyed any festive TV comedy made in the last 20-odd years.  (Incidentally, if you say you like the Mr Bean episode where he ends up with a giant Christmas turkey stuck over his head, you don’t deserve to live.)

 

© BBC

 

As I mentioned earlier, Christmas was traditionally a time for telling ghost stories.  The BBC’s supernatural dramas that were broadcast every Yuletide during the 1970s under the title of A Ghost Story for Christmas now seem deeply festive – even though the stories themselves didn’t have Christmas-time settings.  (That said, most of them were based on works by M.R. James, who liked reading his latest tales to his friends at King’s College, Cambridge, “at the season of Christmas”.)  1971’s The Stalls of Barchester (based on a James story) and 1976’s The Signalman (based on a Dickens one) are probably the most memorable; 1977’s Stigma, set in the present day and using an original script by Clive Exton, is the subtlest and saddest; and 1975’s The Ash Tree, based on another James story, is the freakiest, ending with a pack of little spider-things with human faces scuttling up the branches of the titular tree to a bedroom window.  All the episodes are currently up on Youtube.

 

© Charlemagne Productions Ltd

 

Music.  Christmas songs are generally dreadful – apart from the Pogues’ Fairy Tale of New York and Run DMC’s Christmas in Hollis – and the songs that get to the Christmas number-one spot in the UK are generally worse than dreadful, especially now that they’re usually sung by the latest non-entity to have rolled off the Simon Cowell Conveyor Belt of Karaoke.  But for an enjoyably berserk Christmas listening experience, you can’t beat the heavy metal versions of Christmas songs like Silent Night and Jingle Bells recorded in 2012, 2013 and 2014 by the late, legendary actor Sir Christopher Lee, star of the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars movies and many horror ones.  The combination of the nonagenarian Lee’s still-booming operatic voice, twiddly power-metal guitars and Christmas – what’s not to love?

 

Art.  In the last few years English-speaking culture has become aware of the goat-horned, curly-tongued Krampus, the demonic figure of Germanic and Slavic folklore who acts as an anti-Santa Claus and goes around at Christmas punishing children who’ve been naughty.  Among other things, there’s been a Hollywood movie made about him, 2015’s Krampus, and he turned up in a 2016 festive episode of the BBC anthology series Inside No 9.  Only recently did I discover that mainland Europe has had a long tradition of exchanging Krampuskarten, greeting cards featuring the Krampus.  These include some bawdy ones where the saucy old festive demon is seen cavorting with buxom young ladies.  Here’s a few examples – charming in their visual designs and quaintly Roald Dahl-esque in their sentiments.

 

From krazywolf.com

From krazywolf.com

From krazywolf.com

 

So Merry Christmas – I trust Santa Claus has been good to you.  Or if you’ve misbehaved, the Krampus has been bad to you.

 

Bowie’s mural

 

 

I always had this idea that David Bowie spent his childhood in a nice big house in a beautiful expanse of English countryside.  I assumed this because I once saw a version of the classic animated Christmas movie The Snowman (1982) that he narrated.  He appears in the movie’s live-action introduction and tells us about an extraordinary event that happened to him one wintertime when he was a little boy: “That winter brought the heaviest snow I’d ever seen.  The snow fell steadily all through the night and when I woke up, the room was filled with light and silence, and I knew then it was to be a magical day…”  What happens is that little David leaves his country house, trudges out into the snowy fields and makes a snowman, and this snowman comes to life, befriends him and takes him to the North Pole to visit Santa Claus.  Wow, I thought.  No wonder Bowie went on to make all those weird albums like Space Oddity (1969) and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) after he’d grown up!

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXEoqb0_mrg

 

However, when Bowie sadly passed away on January 10th, I discovered that he’d actually been born and raised in south London, first in the district of Brixton and then in the suburb of Bromley.  Which meant that he hadn’t spent his childhood in the English countryside, and he hadn’t built a snowman that came to life, and he hadn’t met Santa Claus at the North Pole.  Damn it, David – you lied to me!

 

But no matter.  Folk in Brixton are understandably proud that David Bowie hailed from their neck of the woods and a while back someone painted a picture of him from his Ziggy Stardust / Aladdin Sane period on a wall in Tunstall Road there.  As soon as Bowie’s death was announced, this mural became a place of pilgrimage for Bowie-philes and was quickly transformed into a shrine to his memory.

 

Coincidentally, the other day, I was visiting a mate in Brixton and I happened across the Bowie mural / shrine – well, I could hardly miss it, since it’s at the mouth of Tunstall Road just across from the entrance to the local tube station.  By this time, the wall with Bowie’s red-lightning-streaked features was propping up a waist-high scrum of offerings – mainly bouquets of flowers, but there were also candles, dolls, teddy bears, action-figures, wine bottles, beer-bottles, letters, cards, pictures and, for some odd reason, a tin of spam.

 

 

Meanwhile, people had stuck up more flowers, pictures and letters on the brickwork around the mural, as well as newspaper cuttings and even a vintage issue of Jackie, that ‘weekly magazine for girls’ once published by D.C. Thomson, which had Bowie on its cover.  (It also boasted of having pin-ups inside for ‘Bryan Ferry, Elvis, Alice Cooper and Noddy Holder’, so it was vintage indeed.)

 

 

The wall had acquired a few pieces of Bowie-related graffiti, but that was nothing compared to the white-backgrounded hoarding just along from the mural, which in the past few days had become smothered in scribbled tributes and epitaphs to the departed rock god.  Many of these messages were cosmic in tone, in accordance with his early 1970s stage persona: ‘Rest in space’, ‘See you on our red planet’, ‘Our star in the sky’ and so on.

 

I found it ironic that the ads on those hoardings, which Bowie’s fans had so defaced, were for various beauty products.  Surely, I thought, in view of what Bowie did to popularise the use of make-up – among boys as much as among girls – the cosmetics industry wouldn’t begrudge this small act of vandalism by the great man’s admirers?